One patron strong

Historic Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery continues to contract milk, operate store

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ROCK DELL, Minn. — Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery in southeast Minnesota is in business even though it has just a single patron.

Phil Suess and Diane Severson co-manage the cooperative in Rock Dell.

“In the state of Minnesota, there aren’t very many small independent creameries left,” Suess said.

Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery, which began in 1889, does not process its own milk anymore but contracts out milk instead.

“We’re still a creamery,” Suess said. “We still buy and sell milk. The small dairies have gone by the wayside one at a time, and there’s just nobody to replace that milk anymore.”

Besides selling milk from one farm, what makes Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery unique is the fact that the building is, in many ways, an untouched museum of its past. The large, two-story brick structure was built in 1919.

“It’s a sturdy building,” Suess said. “It’s not going anywhere. It’s amazing the architecture that went into this thing a hundred and some years ago.”

When the creamery began, it was under the name Zumbro Cooperative Creamery. At some point, it was renamed Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery. According to a 2018 Star Herald Community News Corp. article, the original creamery burnt in the early 1900s, hence the reason the current building is about 30 years younger than the cooperative.

The former butter factory is now a store for the cooperative.

Next to the store area downstairs, a small barrel holds a roll of butter paper. It remains even though the creamery stopped making butter in 1965, according to the aforementioned article.

In the unused upstairs, a book of empty Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery share stock lies open on an old safe, still there after at least 24 years.

In another upstairs room, boxes of creamery records are a trove of local dairy history. Suess said nothing was ever thrown away. On shelves, books of records date to 1917. Opening the books, beautiful cursive writing neatly details patron details of cream and butterfat.

Initially, the cooperative bought cream since the plant made butter. When they stopped making butter, customers began shipping milk to the creamery and then to whatever processing plant they were contracted with. Despite no longer making butter, Suess said they had over 300 farms in the 1970s.

The downstairs of the building is partially used for the farm store and office. There, an antique cash register rings up purchases for guests.

“We’re ... an out-in-the-middle-of-the-country, small convenience store,” Suess said.

The store sells Big Gain Inc. livestock feed, water softener salt, rubber over-boots, salt blocks and fly spray.

They also have food items like pop, cheese, ice cream and pizza.

A tall, antique scale weighs custom cuts of cheese. The building features a walk-in cooler for cheese stock.

The farm store also sells eggs and honey from local farmers.

“(We are) providing a service for people that want it,” Suess said.

The farm store is open with limited hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Suess, who sold his cows and retired from dairy farming this winter, started helping his dad milk cows at the age of 5. Suess sold his milk to Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery for most of his farming career.

Suess started selling milk to Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery in the early 1970s and continued until about 2021.

“Every time you lose a small business, you lose a piece of history,” Suess said.

Over the years, patrons have declined. In 1989, according to the Star Herald Community News Corp article, there were about 100.

For the last five years, the creamery has been restricted due to quotas, and they cannot take on additional patrons. Suess said he was told by his buyer that if the creamery they are contracting with takes on too much milk, someone would end up not getting paid.

“All these big corporations today in the milk industry were not started by 10,000-cow farms,” Suess said. “They don’t cater to us anymore. They would rather back into a place, hook a semi and leave than have a milk truck stop at 15 farms to get a load of milk.”

Suess said the loss of patrons has been one of their biggest challenges.

“From 100 patrons ... to one today, financially, there’s no dividing expenses against anybody,” Suess said.

If they continue to sell feed, Suess said they can continue to operate as a cooperative.

“Our plan is to keep it open just as long as we can,” Suess said. “Everybody knows that there’s a D-day in this thing, but we’re hoping it’s quite a few years down the road. We’re financially strong.”

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